The problems with “no interrupting” as a categorical social norm

I’ve noticed that people are increasingly adverse to interrupting others, especially in progressive circles. The thought is admirable- shy people, or people who have been taught that their opinions matter less, tend to lose out in a social environment in which interruptions are common. This may have a particular effect on oppressed individuals such as women (although results are mixed with different researchers finding different results.) However I want to argue that, as a blanket rule, “don’t interrupt people” has its weaknesses as well as strengths.

1.Dominant individuals sometimes circumvent the spirit of the rule by talking non-stop

I’ve noticed a pattern whereby dominant individuals will sometimes talk almost continuously, taking  percentage-wise a much larger slice of the conversation than would be “equitable”. Anyone wanting to say anything is all but forced to interrupt them. Sometimes they even turn around and complain when they are interrupted.

I have a small fascination with conversational norms and often like to time how much people speak. One particularly extreme examples of this were a guy I met at Occupy who believed that the government was responsible for covering up the discovery of free energy. The occupy guy would sometimes speak for many minutes straight in what was supposed to be a conversation, and then become agitated and verbally aggressive when people would interrupt him.

This sort of thing can take more subtle forms. For example, earlier in my life when I worked as an admin officer in a hospital there were perhaps one or two nurses who simply would not bother pausing their conversation to give me an opportunity to ask what I needed to ask, even if their conversation was not work related. At times I would stand there awkwardly and very visibly for as long as three minutes until they finally relented and asked what was up. I was loathe to interrupt those who were functionally my superiors, and presumably they hoped that if they kept it up long enough I might simply go away and not create additional work for them. Had I interrupted, treating interruption as aggression would totally misunderstand the real power dynamics at play.

2. Interruption is extremely multi-functional 

Interruption is multi-functional. The term “interruption” has a very aggressive connotation, but in truth some forms of interruption are entirely neutral, or even supportive.

For example, I sometimes trail off, rather than abruptly ending a statement. When I do so I am almost always quite happy for someone else to take over

Similarly, depending on context, some interruptions can be supportive, amplifying the speaker’s point and giving them social validation and support.

Even when an interruption has a somewhat aggressive edge, it’s a case by case basis whether or not the conversation is better off without it. If the speaker has just made a straight forward mistake that is likely to be fatal to their point for example, it’s often better to let them know immediately rather than waiting till they’ve finished. Indeed, in some cases waiting till they’ve finished to point out they are totally mistaken can come across as snide or passive aggressive.

3. There may be a class aspect to this

Half an hour of Googling didn’t turn up any data for me on this- so this is anecdotal- nonetheless, in my experience, people with college degrees, especially in the humanities, are much more likely to use strict, clear turn taking in conversation. Insisting on a norm of non-interruption might disproportionately lock out blue collar workers and those without college degrees.

4. There definitely is a cultural aspect to this

Without belabouring the point, it’s pretty well established that there is large cultural variation in the degree to which interruption is considered normal, thus “don’t interrupt” favours those raised in certain cultures over others.

5. The problem with social norms generally.

I want to be clear here that I’m not saying that “don’t interrupt” is necessarily, on net, a bad social norm. No social norm is perfect, and from that arises the difficulty.

Social norms, especially novel social norms that are being proposed as an alternative to inadequate existing institutions, have to be at least relatively simple and exceptionless, so they can be promulgated, and once promulgated, enforced without endless arguments about whether or not this or that act breached the norm.

What we actually want is for people to be more thoughtful about giving others opportunities to speak, weighing a variety of factors ranging from the status of the other person, the temperament of the other person, the importance of what they have to say, the relevance of what you have to say and so on. The problem is “be thoughtful and considerate” is very difficult to translate into a rule, so instead we get these extremely categorical determinations designed for the avoidance of doubt. Unsurprisingly, these relatively rigid rules have unintended consequences and exploits.

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